Best Coast

How Fron­tier is build­ing, piece by piece, the ul­ti­mate theme-park sim


How Fron­tier is build­ing, piece by piece, the ul­ti­mate theme-park sim­u­la­tor with Planet Coaster

Fron­tier’s chief cre­ative of­fi­cer, Jonny Wil­cox, loves a good queue. He’s English, of course, so it comes with the ter­ri­tory to an ex­tent. But put Wil­cox in a theme park and he’ll shun the of­fer of a pri­or­ity pass, which of­fers the roller­coaster afi­cionado a speedy route to the front of the line. “I like to queue,” he tells us. “My fam­ily doesn’t! But I just like to look around at the theme park. Also, it’s the only chance I get to talk to my kids.” While Wil­cox has a pro­fes­sional in­ter­est in the thrill ride in front of him, he’s just as in­vested in the com­plex work­ings of an­other ma­chine: the park it­self. Books have been writ­ten on how best to struc­ture a theme park. They’ll tell you to put the most ex­cit­ing ride as far away from the en­trance as pos­si­ble, both to let guests get ac­cli­ma­tised with some low­er­stress rides and to eke more money out of them along the way. They ad­vise on the cor­rect place­ment of food stands and toi­lets in or­der to max­imise the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence – and their ex­pen­di­ture. They’ll share best-prac­tice ad­vice on crowd man­age­ment, on struc­tur­ing paths and plac­ing scenery to op­ti­mise the flow of an ex­cited, teem­ing crowd. Be­fore our visit to Fron­tier, we had no idea these books even ex­isted. Af­ter a day spent in the com­pany of a team mak­ing what is, by a dis­tance, the most am­bi­tious theme-park sim­u­la­tor ever cre­ated, we have a strange urge to read one. Al­most ev­ery team work­ing on Planet Coaster is break­ing new ground – lit­er­ally, in the case of the brains be­hind the voxel-based ter­rain de­for­ma­tion tech, and fig­u­ra­tively just about ev­ery­where else. And, as any good theme park de­signer will tell you, at the heart of it all is a busy, happy crowd. “It’s all about through­put,” Wil­cox says. “The first prin­ci­ple is the guests are the most im­por­tant thing in the sim­u­la­tion, so every­thing you do af­fects the guest. Whether you build a con­vo­luted path, where you put scenery, toi­lets – every­thing af­fects them, and it’s all about man­ag­ing this ideal through­put. They’re like the lifeblood of the park.” Pow­ered by over an hour of cus­tom an­i­ma­tions, speak­ing a new lan­guage of Fron­tier’s in­ven­tion, and in­di­vid­u­ally click­able to re­veal their cur­rent mood, wants and needs, a Planet Coaster park teems with what are es­sen­tially a cou­ple of thou­sand Sims. As re­mark­able as that may seem, you re­ally have to see them move to ap­pre­ci­ate it: whether part of a group or on their own, there is a grace­ful, nat­u­ral flow to the way the crowd moves through your park – pro­vid­ing you’ve got your pathing right, of course. It turns out that ‘flow’ is the right word for it, as prin­ci­pal pro­gram­mer Owen Mc Carthy ex­plains. Planet Coaster’s crowds are, es­sen­tially, guided by an in­vis­i­ble body of wa­ter. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in physics and fluid sim­u­la­tions, and there was a lot of re­search into us­ing fluid and flow to sim­u­late [the move­ment of] a crowd,” he says. “In­stead of sim­u­lat­ing for ev­ery per­son – where’s this one go­ing to go, then this one, then this one – you just have to do one solve of the [fluid] flow. It takes a while, but once it’s done you can have as many peo­ple as you want in there. Thou­sands.”


It’s a tech­nique that’s been used be­fore – for unit move­ment in RTS games such as Supreme Com­man­der – but only on flat ter­rain. By break­ing the map up into tiny sec­tions, Mc Carthy has made the tech work in a game which, thanks to ter­rain sculpt­ing and de­for­ma­tion, is a lot more ver­ti­cal and less pre­dictable. And it’s a god­send in a game where the player can re­lay paths and place es­sen­tial ob­jects such as benches and bins on the fly, since the fluid sim­u­la­tion just guides them around any ob­sta­cle. Cru­cially, it’s not an in­ten­sive process – for Mc Carthy, any­way; the ren­der­ing team would dis­agree – and when we’re shown a vast plaza teem­ing with a crowd of sev­eral thou­sand, the fram­er­ate barely dips. It’s scal­able, too, the ef­fect far from re­stricted to only play­ers with mon­ster PCs. “If you have a slow ma­chine, the flow just up­dates less of­ten,” Mc Carthy says. “And you can con­tinue to flow on the old data un­til the new data is ready. They walk slowly any­way, so you don’t need to up­date ev­ery frame.” It’s a heck of a sight, and even more so when you see it hap­pen in re­al­time – a slight tweak to a path or the ad­di­tion of some de­lib­er­ately awk­wardly placed scenery caus­ing the crowd to in­stantly, seam­lessly change how it moves. Re­al­time re­sponse to your ac­tions is crit­i­cal in a game whose

ev­ery facet can be tweaked on the fly, and it’s a chal­lenge that’s prompted fresh think­ing in just about ev­ery as­pect of the game’s de­vel­op­ment.

Nowhere is that more true than in the au­dio depart­ment, which be­gan work on Planet

Coaster by be­ing told that the tech­niques it used in de­vel­op­ing Elite Dan­ger­ous would have to be dis­carded. “You’ve got so many ob­jects on screen,” lead au­dio de­signer Matthew Flo­ri­anz tells us. “You’ve got so many peo­ple walk­ing around your park that if we were to put a sin­gle sound on all of them and then check which ones are in range – which is how we nor­mally do sound – just check­ing who’s in range would take longer than a sin­gle frame.

“If you take Elite, or a shooter or any­thing, you’re a ship or a gun or a per­son mov­ing through a world, and that gives us a very solid start­ing point. We de­sign re­ally cool gun sounds, or car sounds, or in the case of Elite, re­ally cool ship sounds. It’s all about get­ting the sense of mov­ing through space. But in this game, what is ‘you’? Un­less you’re rid­ing one of the coast­ers [in first­per­son], ‘you’ is some­thing that’s noth­ing at first and evolves over time.”

The so­lu­tion is a sort of au­dio LOD: the closer a per­son is to the cam­era, the more in sync their au­dio. Pre-recorded crowd sounds will be played from guests that are far­ther away, while those in front of you will be speak­ing per­fectly synced Planco, a re­place­ment for the English lan­guage de­vised by one of the au­dio de­sign­ers, which both avoids lo­cal­i­sa­tion headaches and fits with the cheery, car­toon­ish theme of the game. Head of au­dio Jim Croft calls the tech­nique “con­tex­tual mix­ing. It’s def­i­nitely the fu­ture of games, be­cause we have no hope, in these huge games, of be­ing able to re­alise ev­ery sin­gle thing, en­tity, emit­ter that ex­ists in the game. We have to think about what’s im­por­tant to the player.”

Great, you’d think, prob­lem solved. Then there was just the small mat­ter of rent­ing out a theme park for two days so a pro­fes­sional sound-record­ing artist could get coaster sam­ples, which were then split up and as­signed to var­i­ous track com­po­nents – ac­cord­ing to ma­te­ri­als, curve and in­cline, speed and pitch, and so on – al­low­ing the game en­gine to call for the right sounds in re­al­time. Then dis­tor­tion was added, since no per­son’s roller­coaster ex­pe­ri­ence is a cleaned-up, dig­i­tal one. Then ef­fects were added for scenery rush­ing past. Then Fron­tier had Toronto mu­si­cian Jim Guthrie

record a 15-track al­bum that plays when the cam­era’s zoomed right out, and also when you’re in the fron­tend, the mu­sic shift­ing slightly as you load into sub­menus, then sync­ing up per­fectly with load­ing times so that it comes to a coda and stops as the park ap­pears be­fore your eyes. The at­ten­tion to de­tail is stag­ger­ing, to the point that we won­der out loud – a lit­tle im­po­litely, in hind­sight – if it’s all re­ally worth it. “There’s noth­ing we don’t spend time on,” Croft says. “Ev­ery lit­tle de­tail, we want to get just right so that peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ence is the best it can be. We’ve a very am­bi­tious stu­dio, and a very am­bi­tious au­dio depart­ment. We want to be the best in class. You don’t do that by cut­ting cor­ners.” When we visit, staff at Fron­tier are hard at work on Planet Coaster’s third al­pha, which sees the game’s sim­u­la­tion el­e­ments – in­clud­ing that re­mark­able crowd – come on­line. It’s a sig­nif­i­cant ad­di­tion to a game that de­buted with mod­u­lar build­ing of coast­ers and scenery, then added ter­rain ma­nip­u­la­tion in its sec­ond al­pha. The up­date also adds what looks set to be a vi­tal com­po­nent in Planet Coaster’s likely ap­peal be­yond the hard­core coaster-builder crowd: Steam Work­shop sup­port. Bol­stered by a Fron­tier-de­signed fron­tend that not only brings Valve’s mod-shar­ing frame­work in-game but also gives it a much-needed cos­metic over­haul, it adds an el­e­ment of cu­ra­tion to the game. “From a data man­age­ment point of view,” Wil­cox says, “Work­shop is awe­some. From a user ex­pe­ri­ence point of view, it’s too much.” Fron­tier saves you wad­ing through the over­whelm­ing flood of user­made con­tent by show­ing you what your friends have been up to. While coast­ers and scenery can be built, part by part, from scratch, Wil­cox and team recog­nise that not ev­ery­one wants, or is able, to do so. So you’ll be able to down­load some un­fath­omably in­tri­cate work of thrill-ride ge­nius some­one has poured dozens of hours into cre­at­ing, and drop it straight into your park with a few clicks. “I’m not cre­ative at all – I’m a pro­ducer for a very good rea­son,” says – yes – pro­ducer Rich New­bold. “I pre­fer the man­age­ment stuff; I’m a sim­u­la­tion guy, I like economies, I like man­ag­ing num­bers. I just want to be able to down­load peo­ple’s cre­ativ­ity, put it in my park and then worry about the price of burg­ers.” Wil­cox is es­pe­cially ex­cited about Work­shop sup­port. While there is a tremen­dous amount of in­no­va­tion go­ing on on the de­vel­op­ment floor, for­mal mod sup­port is a truly new thing for a genre in which Wil­cox has op­er­ated for a de­cent chunk of his ca­reer; he made ex­pan­sion packs for Roller­Coaster Ty­coon 2 and worked on RCT3, too. “Ten years ago, peo­ple were shar­ing parks via email; now we’re fully em­brac­ing shar­ing. I like that be­cause we haven’t done it be­fore – it’s new, fresh, a chal­lenge, the idea is good – but I think a man­age­ment game is the sum of its parts. Every­thing we’ve done… all the dis­ci­plines work­ing to­gether have cre­ated a whole. If the game were to fail it would be be­cause of a weak link that breaks the whole vi­sion, and so far we haven’t en­coun­tered that.” Yet Wil­cox is lucky to have been able to get Planet Coaster off the ground at all. Mc Carthy’s work on the crowd fluid sys­tem be­gan in pre-pro­duc­tion, where he was given a few months to see if it could be done – a lux­ury that, were Fron­tier be­holden to a pub­lisher, sim­ply wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble. “They want some­thing now,” Mc Carthy says, “and they want some­thing that works. You don’t get to ex­per­i­ment.” Deal­ing with 30,000 al­pha back­ers presents its own headaches, of course, but Wil­cox recog­nises that were Fron­tier not now fully in­de­pen­dent, Planet Coaster might never have hap­pened. A pub­lisher would see it as a nos­tal­gia play, rather than an op­por­tu­nity to re­visit a beloved genre of yore with 2016era pro­duc­tion val­ues. In­stead, work­ing un­der its own steam, Fron­tier is able to of­fer a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions’ worth of progress to a crowd who are still play­ing RCT3 ten years af­ter its re­lease – while ex­pand­ing this niche’s ap­peal to a wider au­di­ence than ever. That would be no small feat given that com­bined sales of the RCT se­ries are in ex­cess of 20 mil­lion units, but Wil­cox clearly feels that the stars have aligned. He might just have a point. “We’ve al­ways wanted to make a proper man­age­ment sim­u­la­tion again,” he says. “It’s hard to con­vince some pub­lish­ers, be­cause it gets too de­tailed – is there a mar­ket for it? Now we’re self-pub­lish­ing, from a cre­ative point of view it’s our de­ci­sion. And our mis­take, if it is a mis­take. But with games like Cities Sky­lines and Prison Ar­chi­tect, man­age­ment sim­u­la­tions are back in vogue. We can make the game we’ve al­ways wanted to. Pro­duc­tion pipe­lines and hard­ware have im­proved. With the cloud, we can ex­pand upon com­mu­nity. In terms of tim­ing, it’s bril­liant. Every­thing’s seemed to slot into place. It’s a dream come true.”



Mas­cots en­ter­tain guests, but can cause a block­age if their per­for­mance draws too large a crowd. No worry – fire them on the spot and they slope off, mis­er­able

FROM TOP Chief cre­ative of­fi­cer Jonny Wil­cox; prin­ci­pal pro­gram­mer Owen Mc Carthy; lead au­dio de­signer Matthew Flo­ri­anz

Un­like a Uni­ver­sal or Dis­ney, Fron­tier has no pre-ex­ist­ing IP on which to base its park de­signs. The art team es­sen­tially had to write its own dark, Grimm-style fairy­tale be­fore it could be­gin build­ing the scenery for this par­tic­u­lar theme

A re­al­time read­out lets you see a coaster’s ex­cite­ment and nau­sea val­ues. Old­fash­ioned rides are un­likely to gen­er­ate much of ei­ther, but va­ri­ety is es­sen­tial

FROM TOP Head of au­dio Jim Croft; pro­ducer Rich New­bold

Ex­trav­a­gant cre­ations such as this (above) may seem a lit­tle fan­ci­ful, but the tools are avail­able to all, and the Planet Coaster com­mu­nity has al­ready done re­mark­able work

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